The cathedral in Monreale is a columned basilica with three aisles, in the shape of a cross, and its proportions are considerable (102m/335ft long, 40m/131ft wide, 35m/115ft high). The west side is a twin-towered facade (the left tower remains unfinished), typical of Norman architecture, in front of which an atrium formerly stood (where the present-day Piazza Guglielmo II now lies). Between the towers, as well as along the north side, a portico was later added, but the total effect remains to all intents and purposes undisturbed.Leaving the cloister and going to the left along the front of the building, we pass through the next entrance to the belvedere, a small public park on a terrace, from where there is a beautiful view of the Oreto valley and the mountains opposite.Very fine Romanesque cloisters, with spectacular mosaics. The interior greets the visitor with a flare of gold.
Monreale Cathedral Map
Address: Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, I-90046 Monreale, Italy
Opening hours: 8am-12pm, 3:30pm-6pm
Entrance fee: FREE
Monreale Cathedral Highlights
The strongest impression presented by the exterior is on the east side, with its three apses, which is still as it originally was. With its overlapping ogival false arches and its varied decorations made of bright chalk-tuff and black lava, it epitomizes the liturgical dignity, which is characteristic of this part of the church in its interior as well.The two bronze portals are also noteworthy. The west portal, the work of Bonnano Pisano (1186), and at 7.80 x 3.70m/26 x 12ft the largest bronze door of its age, has 42 squares, each depicting a biblical scene. Four reliefs make up the base, fantastic animals, symbolizing man's foolishness. The smaller north portal by Barisano da Trani (roughly contemporaneous) has 28 panels depicting saints and evangelists.
From the mystically shimmering gold background the biblical figures and scenes emerge, a complete cosmos of pictorial narration and preaching.The interior has a nave with three aisles, which are separated by 2 x 9 mainly ancient columns with rich Corinthian capitals which support ogival arches. The central aisle has a richly painted open roof truss (faithfully restored after a fire in 1811). Over the crossing an octagonal dome is thought to have been planned, but never executed. The marble floor dates from the time of the original building, apart from a few refurbishments which took place in 1560.The central aisle is composed of Old Testament scenes, the side aisles show the miracles of Jesus.
The sanctuary, which is separated off from the choir by a barrier and, in keeping with its spiritual significance, is slightly raised, begins at the transept and is almost as long as the lay room. In common with Byzantine Eastern Orthodox tradition, it consists of three areas: a chancel between a prothesis and diaconicon.In front of the crossing pillars in the central aisle, underneath mosaic pictures of William II, stand the thrones of the king (on the left) and the bishop (on the right).
In the right-hand aisle of the sanctuary we find the tomb of the Norman kings: the porphyry sarcophagus of William I (1154-66) and the marble sarcophagus in which William II (1166-89) rests. The original tiled chest was removed in 1575. In the left-hand side of the sanctuary are the tombs of William I's wife, Margaret, and his sons, Roger, Duke of Apulia, and Henry, Prince of Capua. On the left wall there is the urn with the heart of the canonized French King Louis IX, who died in 1270 during his crusade to Tunis.
From the left-hand side of the sanctuary we come into the Cappella del Crocifisso (17th century) and to the cathedral treasure. In the south side aisle is the entrance to the Cappella San Benedetto (16th century) with reliefs by G. B. Marino (1728) and a "Gloria di San Benedetto" by I. Marabitti (1776). At the west end of the south side aisle there is access to the steps leading up to the cathedral roof (180 steps, view).
The impression which Monreale Cathedral leaves on every visitor derives on the one hand from the clear use of space, which is what enabled the idea of the simple basilica to gain acceptance, following the example of Montecassino and thus moving away from Eastern Byzantine concepts of space. On the other hand the spirit of Byzantine culture is very much present: notably in the superb mosaics which are everywhere. They cover all the walls, no less than 6340sq.m/68,250sq.ft. What artists from Constantinople, together with local mosaicists, were able to achieve in the short time between 1179 and 1182, is overwhelming.
Cathedral - Nave
In the nave of Monreale Cathedral the pictures are arranged clockwise, as in the Cappella Palatina. As in that building, we begin looking on the south wall of the central aisle, at the left (east) end, with the upper row of pictures: the story of the Creation up to Adam in Paradise. On the shorter west wall the pictures continue with the creation of Eve, on the north side: the Fall of Man, expulsion, Cain, Noah's orders to build the ark.Continuing once again on the opposite-facing south side, with the lower series of pictures (left to right): Noah's ark, Abraham and the three angels. The west wall adds Lot and the destruction of Sodom in its middle section.The story of Abraham is continued on the north side with the sacrifice of Isaac. The story of Isaac and Jacob follows, up to the point of "Jacob's struggle with the angel".
Cathedral - Transept
The transept is devoted to the life and Passion of Jesus, the Resurrection and the apostles Paul and Peter.In the transept we enter the world of the New Testament. The east sides are reserved for the apostles Paul (on the left) and Peter (on the right); under the picture of their martyrdom we see them each as timeless enthroned figures. The two apostles are also depicted at the head of the choir, between the transept and the apse.On the south crossing-arch we see above us Zacharias, the Annunciation, Mary's visitation, the flight to Egypt. The continuation is opposite on the arch on the north side: the three Kings, the slaughter of the Bethlehem children. Underneath is the baptism of Jesus and the miracle at Cana.We then move back to the opposite side where the south wall depicts the Temptation and Transfiguration, as well as the beginning of the Passion (Gethsemane). The north wall continues the story of the Passion with the Crucifixion and adds the apparitions of the risen Christ up to the festival of Pentecost.
The Saints Clement and Peter of Alexandria, Silvester and Thomas of Canterbury form the basis for the pictures in the apse. In the middle of the three sections the enthroned Mary is the central figure between the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and the apostles Peter and Paul. The sequence of pictures reaches its climax in the half-dome of the apse with the monumental picture of Christ the Pantocrator, his majestic face dominating the whole interior. With his right hand raised in a gesture of benediction, he holds in his left hand the opened book with the words: "I am the light of the world."
To the right of the cathedral façade is the entrance to the famous cloister, the most significant remnant of the former Benedictine abbey, which was also built on William's instruction. The ruined south wing is also still extant. The cloister occupies a square 47 x 47m/154 x 154ft. The 26 arches on each of the four sides open on to the luxuriant and brightly-colored garden. They are supported by double columns (228 in all) with double capitals. These columns are either smooth or encrusted with colored stones, no pair of columns being like another. In the corners we find four smaller columns with relief work.
Façade Southeast Corner
In the southeast corner there is a chapel with a fountain with ornamented columns of exceptional opulence inserted; in the center a pillar with a zigzag pattern and sculptured decoration at the top is where the water runs out. Even more imaginative than the columns is the sculpture on the double capitals: they show plants, animals, human beings, acrobats and archers, griffons and other fantastic creatures as well as biblical themes, such as the story of the Passion (the women around the grave). This whole wealth of decorative and narrative elements can only really be appreciated by a very leisurely walk round. The visitor's attention is drawn in particular to the 19th capital on the west side, which shows King William II offering the model of the church to the Madonna; also the capital resting on four columns in the southeast corner of the cloister with its masterly composition based on the following themes: 1. Annunciation; 2. Visitation, an angel appearing to Joseph; 3. Christ's birth, proclamation to the shepherds; 4. The Three Kings.
The choir is dominated by the image of Christ the Pantocrator, the ruler of the world, who has his place above his mother Mary.At the threshold of the top end of the choir King William II is depicted twice on the crossing pillars: first being crowned by Christ (on the left, over the King's throne) and then giving the Mother of God the model of the church founded by him at Monreale (on the right, over the bishop's throne). The King wears - like his grandfather Roger II on the coronation mosaic in the Martorana in Palermo - the regalia of the Byzantine emperors, yet the inscription is not in Greek (as with Roger), but in Latin - an indirect allusion to the gradual severance from Byzantium and the growing influence of Latin culture.